Georgia Senate looks at sports betting bill that bypasses changes to constitution

ATLANTA - The state Senate began debate Tuesday on legislation that would legalize betting on sports in Georgia – including horse racing – without the potential pitfall of requiring a constitutional amendment.

Senate Bill 57 would allow sports betting both online and in person at kiosks that could be located inside a range of businesses, including sports venues. The program would be overseen by the Georgia Lottery Corp.

Georgia state Senator Billy Hickman
Georgia state Senator Billy Hickman

“By running this through the lottery, there’s not a constitutional amendment required,” Sen. Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro, the bill’s chief sponsor, told members of the Senate Economic Development & Tourism Committee Tuesday. “Sports betting is deemed a lottery game.”

Like a second sports betting bill introduced in the state House of Representatives on Monday, the Senate measure would not require a constitutional amendment to become law, based on a recent legal opinion from former Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton that a constitutional change is unnecessary.

Constitutional amendments must gain a two-thirds majority vote in the Georgia House and Senate, a requirement that has tripped up past efforts to get the legislation through the General Assembly.

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What’s different about the Senate legislation is it would legalize all types of sports betting – except high school games and other contests involving competitors under age 18.

It would do that by requiring “fixed-odds” rather than “pari-mutuel” betting. With fixed-odds betting, the odds a bettor places on a sports contest don’t change as the volume of bets increases, Hickman said.

The Georgia Constitution specifically prohibits casino gambling and pari-mutuel betting but not fixed-odds betting, added Josh Belinfante, a lawyer representing the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition. Thus, the Senate bill does not need a constitutional amendment, Belinfante said.

Under the Senate bill, 20% of the adjusted gross income derived from sports betting would go to the Georgia Lottery Corp. to benefit education. Hickman said that could potentially bring in $300 million to $400 million a year.

Citing an economic impact study released last year, Hickman said sports betting could inject $1 billion annually into Georgia’s economy and create more than 8,500 jobs, many in rural areas of the state.

“That’s more jobs than Chick-fil-A has in Georgia, more jobs than Lockheed has in Georgia,” said Hickman, a horse racing enthusiast who owns thoroughbred horses.

But the bill’s opponents questioned its potential economic benefits. Peggy McCarthey, a board member of the nonprofit Georgia Pet Coalition, said horse tracks across the U.S. are no longer profitable unless they’re co-located with casinos.

“Public interest in horse racing is small and getting smaller,” she said. “Since 2000, 41 tracks have closed. Attendance is down.”

John Kent, a former business professor at the University of Illinois who recently retired to Georgia, said legalizing any form of sports betting in the Peach State would require a constitutional amendment. He cited a recent opinion written by former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, a Democrat from Athens.

“Gambling statutes are going to lose in court,” Kent said.

Mike Griffin, public affairs representative for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, who has appeared many times before legislative committees opposing legalized gambling, said failing to require a constitutional amendment would mean bypassing a statewide referendum on the issue.

“It needs to be voted on by the people … if there’s going to be any additional gambling,” he said.

The committee did not vote on the Senate bill Tuesday. Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, the committee’s chairman, who has sponsored horse racing bills in past legislative sessions, said he expects a vote next week.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Georgia Senate committee tees up sports betting bill